The Bricktosser

A place for me to rant, ramble and rave about all things comics related.

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Friday, December 23, 2005

It’s about super-heroes today...

Iconic or evolving? The eternal struggle in ongoing comics

One thing that fascinates me about modern comics is the format of an ongoing storyline that goes on for decades. The only parallel I can think of is television soap operas, and it’s no wonder that comics are often called soap operas. But there’s one huge difference—comics characters aren’t actors, and don’t age. That’s a typical point for comic fans to discuss from time to time. But I’m intrigued more by a side-effect of that. Comics characters are also property. They have a certain value as the recognizable central element of comics stories and comic book series. This poses some problems with the aforementioned soap-opera aspect of comic books. That is—you don’t want to devalue your property. At the same time, you’re telling a story, you might want your characters to evolve. The tension between those two forces—the force to preserve a character, particularly a successful one—and the urge to develop and change them—can be seen all over comics.

For instance, let’s consider two hugely popular comic book properties: Superman and the X-Men. Both are household names, recognizable by just about everyone. X-Men aren’t exactly in Superman’s league for worldwide recognition, but they’ve been consistently the most popular comics for decades, and thanks to the movies, are better known than ever now. At their core, these two properties represent the two extremes pretty well. Not surprisingly, they also tend to be on opposites sides of fanboy squabbles. Lots of X-Men fans hate Superman, and vice versa.

Superman is the Iconic Unchanging Character poster boy. In the fifties and sixties he was probably at his height of popularity, and writers and editors were the most conservative with the character. I mean, one of his powers was that he was unchangeable. Invulnerable, unchangeable, same thing. His hair didn’t grow! Literally! I seem to recall a story in which Lois suspects Clark of being Superman because the length of his hair is always exactly the same. And speaking of Lois, there was no way she was every going to find out Clark was Superman, or marry him. Period. Wasn’t going to happen.

Taken to the absurd, the stories themselves often revolved around the certainty that nothing was going to change. The covers would tease us that something might actually happen, as with the one below:



Of course, Superman didn’t really grow old. Such a story would be a dream sequence, or “Imaginary Tale” or the result of some elaborate hoax or bizarre effect of Red Kryptonite.

On the other side, there’s the X-Men. Here’s a comic that’s gained at least some of its popularity because things are always changing. The leader of the team dies. Then it turns out he’s not dead. Then he goes off into space and leaves the reformed Archvillain of the series, Magneto, in charge. Many members of the team have died and not mysteriously come back to life or reappeared. Many of the team’s members have been on the side with the badguys at least once. The membership of the team, at different points in time, has had zero overlap with other points in time. About the only thing that stays the same is that the team is made up of mutants. The other semi-constant factors are: they’re young, they hang out at a school for mutants. But these aren’t always true of the series, just usually.

Even those are pretty broad definitions for a comic book, when compared to a book like Superman. Over in his books, you could stop reading for five years, pick one up, and still know who his love interest and best friend are. In X-Men, if you skip five years, many of the characters will be gone, some of them dead. Others will have lost their powers or gained new ones, turned either good or evil, been married or divorced, or possibly left for outer space. Heck, not being a regular reader for some time, I’m not even sure if something I’ve written above isn’t grossly inaccurate as of a recent issue. I’m being intentionally vague because I’m not sure who’s back from the dead or lost their powers most recently.

Up until this point, I’ve been deliberately stressed the differences in these two titles. However, neither is quite the pure example I make them out to be. Superman, in more recent decades, has loosened up considerably. Lois knows his identity and is married to him, despite the fact that it was never going to happen. Period. Modern editors have responded to the urge to develop and change the character, and so in Superman’s world, things are no longer as inert and immutable as they were. And X-Men, for all the drama, death, and change, does seem to revolve back to at least a few of the same characters again and again. Cyclops and Wolverine won’t be far form the book for long. Magneto went back to being a bad guy, and Colossus came back from the dead.

To find really pure examples, you have to look to comics like Archie or Batman Adventures on one hand, and to more experimental comics on the other. Marvel published a series once called Strikeforce Morituri, where the characters had 12-18 months to live, and were regularly replaced. I didn’t read the whole run, but I don’t think those characters were coming back from the dead. Outside of super-hero comics, examples are more plentiful. DC’s Vertigo line of comics has had several series where the characters evolved and changed, and often died, leading to a clear conclusion of the series.

Anyway, half the fun is figuring out what really is central to a comic and what is not. And a lot of interesting comics are the ones that figure that out and are willing to play with the idea, either by constantly changing things, as with the X-men, or classic 60’s Superman, which would always manage to come back around to status quo in the space of a few panels at the end of the story.

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